The video for ‘Dirrty’ transformed Christina Aguilera overnight from girl next door to sex siren. As she plays Wembley, Tim Cooper talks to her about her personal demons
A COUPLE of years ago, Christina Aguilera was acclaimed for having achieved things most young singers can only dream about. She was a Grammy-winning songwriter with one of the finest voices around and had 20 million album sales under her belt. Nowadays, the images that come to mind when her name is mentioned involve slutty outfits, tantrums, multiple piercings, naked cover photos and that kiss with Madonna.
When we catch up with her between dates of her European tour in Germany, the 22-year old Christina offers an explanation for her dramatic image change. “It’s an entirely natural human progression and growth,” she declares.
But her new sexually flamboyant, superconfident image disguises a troubled personality. As one of her aides once put it: “The more outrageous she is, the more she can hide what she’s really like.” Despite her success, Aguilera seems unable to escape her unhappy past — including childhood cruelty at the hands of her father which still haunts her in the form of panic attacks, violent rages and a nervous breakdown.
Her career began conventionally enough. As a child she appeared alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake on Disney channel’s Mickey Mouse Club. She then exploded on to the music scene in 1999 with the song, ‘Genie In A Bottle’, an instant pop classic and global hit that immediately drew comparisons with Britney. Aimed squarely at the teen market, she had a loyal base of young female fans, partly because her image and lyrics weren’t overtly sexual. What people noticed more than anything was her voice — a voice so rich, soulful and expressive that many had trouble believing it really came from a slightly built, 19-year-old white girl.
Her idiosyncratic approach to fashion, however, has always earned her just as much attention as her musical talents, with her garish style earning her regular nominations in awards for the worst-dressed woman. Aguilera is now the official face of Versace, although some would say that this merely underlines the point. “I was actually disappointed that I didn’t make this year’s Worst-Dressed list in People,” Aguilera grins, “because those are the people who go out there and make a statement. It’s so boring looking at the best-dressed people. Who can’t put on an expensive gown and hire the right people to make them look presentable and safe?”
Two years after ‘Genie In A Bottle’, she pushed things even further. She took the risk of alienating all her younger fans at a single stroke by dressing as a hooker in the ‘Lady Marmalade’ video for Moulin Rouge. And early this year, she erased her past in a flash with the video for ‘Dirrty’, an extremely rude bump’n’grind spectacular in which she wore crotchless cowboy chaps, a tiny skirt and, at one point, little more than a pair of red knickers. “When fans come up to me now and show me pictures taken when I made that first record, I look at them and I’m like: ‘Wow! Who is that girl? I was such a baby!'” she laughs.
“But it would be stupid to think I wouldn’t grow in to a young woman with a viewpoint and opinions, and it’s stupid to think that I would not want to voice them.”
Ask her how she squares growing up with stripping off, and Aguilera answers that she’s a “risk taker.” It’s one of her favourite phrases. “The market changed,” she explains bluntly. “I was part of a huge teen pop explosion when I first came on the scene and I’m not knocking it — it was great. I was young and happy to be living my dream. But as the rollercoaster kept on, I was becoming really unhappy the longer it was going on.”
What happened was Aguilera parted company with her manager, split up with her boyfriend, Jorge Santos (one of her dancers), and began another relationship (she refuses to say who) which ended when he cheated on her.
These tribulations and the pressures of work led her to a breakdown. “I was working like a madwoman,” she says. “I felt I was nutty.” Aguilera has often dealt with her feelings by smashing glasses and drinking heavily and sees nothing to apologise for. “I like drinking, it takes the edge off.”
Luckily, she has also managed to channel many of her feelings in to her music. Her most recent album, Stripped, lured the boys with a topless cover before capturing adolescent girls with a collection of life-affirming songs such as ‘Fighter’ and ‘Beautiful’. She says she chose Stripped as the title “because I could not think of any better way to describe getting rid of those layers of superficial pop-driven…” She pauses to pick the right word. “…Shit.”
Somehow it still seems shocking to hear Aguilera swear, but it’s not nearly as shocking as the lyrics of ‘I’m OK’. This song catalogues the emotional impact of the violence she witnessed her father Fausto, a soldier from Ecuador, inflicting on her mother Shelly, an Irish pianist, during her childhood. (She too suffered at his hands.) Even now, she experiences occasional panic attacks at the memories and cannot sleep without leaving the light and the television on for comfort. Fausto has since been in touch. “He said, ‘I’m sorry for what happened in the past and I’m sorry for the abuse.”
If any further proof were needed that her star is on the rise while Britney’s fades, Aguilera has just supported Timberlake, Britney’s ex, on his US tour. With her popularity higher than ever, there’s little doubt she has what it takes to become one of the most successful pop stars in history. Whether she’ll put her problems behind her and fulfil her potential is anyone’s guess.
© Tim Cooper, The Evening Standard, 30 October 2003